Here we go again… Charities and campaigning during elections

For the third time in five years the country is heading to the polls. But are charities any better informed about what campaigning activities they can and cannot undertake during the election period than previously?

The answer is, probably, yes.

In some respects this has been a much foreshadowed election, and as a result of that the Charity Commission has taken steps to highlight its existing guidance, and the Electoral Commission has produced new guidance for charities.

Guidance from the Charity Commission

The Commission in September took the opportunity to remind charities of their responsibilities when it comes to political campaigning, in a blog post from its Chief Executive, Helen Stephenson.

What is campaigning, and what constitutes political activity?

The Commission’s main guidance defines campaigning and political activity as follows:

  • Campaigning is awareness-raising and efforts to educate or involve the public by mobilising their support on a particular issue, or to influence or change public attitudes. It can include activity which aims to ensure that existing laws are observed.
  • Political activity is not just “party political” activity, but activity by a charity aimed at securing, or opposing, any change in the law or in the policy or decisions of central government, local authorities or other public bodies, whether in this country or abroad. It can include activity to preserve an existing piece of legislation, where a charity opposes it being repealed or amended.

The blog post signposts the Commission’s guidance on campaigning and political activity for charities and its supplementary guidance on campaigning and political activity during an election period.

In summary, the Commission’s main guidance sets out the general position that campaigning and political activity can be legitimate and valuable activities for charities to undertake, and indeed may in some situations be the best way for the charity to advance its charitable purposes, but that this kind of campaigning and political activity can only be undertaken by a charity in support of the delivery of its charitable purposes.

So, provided it is in support of a charity’s purpose, and unless its governing document forbids it, a charity can carry out campaigning and political activity.

Such campaigning and political activity, however, cannot be the continuing and sole purpose of a charity, and a charity cannot give support or funding to a political party, to a candidate or to a particular politician. A charity must maintain its independence from all political parties, and indeed its appearance of independence from all political parties, and make sure that any involvement it has with political parties is balanced.

Finally, charity trustees should remember that, when campaigning, a charity must comply not only with charity law, but all other applicable laws (including as the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, sometimes known as the “Lobbying Act”, about which there is more information below) and, if applicable, the Codes of the Advertising Standards Authority.

How do things change during an election?

Although the basic principles remain the same, especial care is required during an election period to ensure a charity’s political neutrality is maintained – and a charity must never seek to suggest to its supporters that they should vote for a particular candidate!

The Commission’s supplementary guidance on campaigning during an election period seeks to address how charities should address particular situations likely to arise, and mistakes which can lead either to charities engaging in party politics (or to the appearance of their so doing), in the run-up to an election.

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